Tree of Life secures $1 million in federal funding for K-12 education
Combating hateOrganization will soon break ground on new building

Tree of Life secures $1 million in federal funding for K-12 education

“It is through elementary school children that attitudes can be transformed to develop a respect and appreciation for all people."

Sen. Bob Casey announces $1 million in federal funding for the Tree of Life. (Photo by David Rullo)
Sen. Bob Casey announces $1 million in federal funding for the Tree of Life. (Photo by David Rullo)

The future of Tree of Life, Inc. became a little clearer last week as Sen. Bob Casey announced $1 million in federal funding for K-12 educational programming to be developed at the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

The funding was announced on May 24 beneath a bright mid-morning sun in Tree of Life’s Zittrain Garden. He was surrounded by survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, family members of the victims and other community members. It was the first activity on the site since much of the synagogue was razed to create a reimagined space, designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. A groundbreaking is scheduled for June 23.

The focus, Casey said, is on uprooting antisemitism.

“That’s part of what we’ve tried to do with this $1 million appropriation, which will help fund and support antisemitism K through 12 educational programming for not just the next generation but many generations,” he said.

Tree of Life, Inc. CEO Carole Zawatsky opened the news conference by recalling walking Casey through the building. He was one of the first people she took through the site after she arrived in Pittsburgh in November 2022.

“I will never forget when he asked me, ‘Would it be OK if I stopped and prayed?’” Zawatsky recalled. “Sen. Casey kneeled down in front of the ark in the Pervin Chapel and prayed. He truly understands how deeply felt this mission is.”

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack, stressed that “through education … we can make a difference.”

“The world’s oldest hate does not appear in a vacuum,” Myers said. “It starts at the kitchen table. Since it’s unlikely that the kitchen tables that we need to sit at will be welcoming, the future Tree of Life will be a place with lots of kitchen tables.”

The organization, Myers explained, will teach the history of antisemitism, the attitudes that led to the Holocaust and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and will recognize that fighting antisemitism is only the beginning.

“It is through elementary school children that attitudes can be transformed to develop a respect and appreciation for all people, regardless of color, religion or sexual orientation,” he said.

Michael Bernstein, board chair of Tree of Life, Inc., said the leaders of the organization feel a responsibility to not only memorialize the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre but to turn the tragedy into something full of hope.

The Tree of Life’s mission, he said, is to uproot antisemitism and identity-based hate. He noted that now is a time of heightened antisemitism, exemplified through recent events on college campuses and in town halls.

Antisemitism “is learned,” he said, “which is why we are reimagining the Tree of Life as a place that tells the story of antisemitism in America and equips visitors, including students in grades K through 12 and beyond.”

The federal investment secured by Casey, Bernstein said, will enable the organization to develop an innovative curriculum and provide experiential learning opportunities, while teaching students to disrupt hate and antisemitic claims through in-person and virtual offerings.

“Our hope is that students develop a better understanding of how Jewish Americans experience antisemitism and an ability to recognize and call out hatred and antisemitism in daily life,” he said.

The site will house the Tree of Life Institute for Countering Hate and Antisemitism, the Tree of Life Center for Jewish Life and Culture and the official 10.27 Memorial, designed in partnership between Daniel Libeskind, the family members of the victims and the three congregations impacted by the attack: Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life.

Those murdered on Oct. 27, 2018, were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Dan Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

Tree of Life, Casey said, has embarked on an ambitious and noble project.

“I have a firm belief that on this sacred ground, this place will be the place where the dark, cold, evil hate and antisemitism will be confronted by the warm bright light of education, the warm bright light of understanding,” he said.

Following his prepared statements, Casey was asked if the funding and upcoming groundbreaking represented a pivot to the future for the organization. He said it is “turning point.”

“Increasingly,” he said, “we’re more focused on the future. We can change hearts and minds in a place like this.”

Asked about the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would require the U.S. Dept. of Education to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism when enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, Casey said the Senate is trying to find a way forward. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month.

Casey said there are senators in both parties who don’t like the IHRA definition and would prefer a broader definition. He said he’s heard those objections but doesn’t agree.

“You’ve got to pay a price if you allow antisemitism or racism or other discriminatory practices to persist,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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